The fish that lays the Golden Egg

Southeast's chum caviar: delicate, mysterious and often disdained

Posted: Wednesday, September 10, 2008

This time of year, a few ravaged chum females are still wandering up local streams to spawn. Their flesh is nearly worthless, but their eggs, at least outside Alaska, are liquid gold.

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David Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David Sheakley / Juneau Empire

A slit to the belly of one, and her unskeined eggs fall out in a slightly bloody, translucent orange stream. Once brined, the milky eggs clarify and turn orange. They are soft, the tongue can lightly feel the shell, the salty honey releases in a tiny explosion - if you go for that sort of thing, which most Americans don't.

Elisabeth Babich, owner of Northern Keta Caviar, sends nearly all her chum salmon caviar to Europe.

"Just don't call it bait," said Babich, who has heard that enough already. "You have to call it caviar."

A hot market - elsewhere

Roe "drives a lot of the economics of the salmon business," according to Tom Sunderland, marketing director for Seattle-based Ocean Beauty Seafoods Inc.

Because of a law against wanton waste, the caviar makers have to buy the whole chum salmon and do something with it. Northern Keta, for example, has it processed in Sitka (since there's no fishmeal plant in Juneau) and sells it in 1,000-pound totes overseas, where it appears as cheap frozen protein portions in China or the Ukraine.

But the flesh is an afterthought, the eggs have primacy.

Caviar prices rise and fall like stocks, and they've been up the last two years, Babich said. A bucket of Northern Keta goes for about $660 now.

On our way to the caviar-processing side of Northern Keta, a fresh salmon smell wafted up the stairwell.

"Do you smell that?" Babich said. "That's the smell of money."

Most of Southeast's roe goes to Japan as ikura, soy-marinated loose eggs, or suziko, whole salted skeins. Northern Keta's European caviar niche is an exception.

Central and Eastern European markets are buying more Alaska caviar, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. But in general, demand is up. Babich said she has huge orders she can't fill with what's available.

As valuable as it is elsewhere, the stuff has never caught on much in this country. Ocean Beauty's U.S. caviar business is mostly a holiday affair, and not of the quality it sells in Japan.

"You hope that in New York it becomes the hot thing, like marrow a couple years ago," Sunderland said. "But you're not going to convince somebody to go down to the grocery store and get some fish eggs."

"I grew up using it as bait, too," he said.

It isn't easy to find in Juneau.

Seong's Sushi restaurant uses local eggs in "battleship"-style sushi - so named because that's what it looks like in its seaweed wrapper, loaded with a pile of caviar cannonballs. The Alaskan & Proud grocery store downtown gets a few jars from Northern Keta each month.

But for the most part, if you want caviar in Southeast, you'll have to catch it yourself.

Transformation

The recipe is short: Add salt to fish eggs. But the details are secret.

"It's a very private industry," said Sunderland, when asked for a tour of the Excursion Inlet roe room. "I can't imagine you'd find anybody who does tours."

That roe room is famous in Japan, according to Douglas Island Pink and Chum hatchery manager Eric Prestegard. Many of the hatchery's eggs are processed there.

Most of Southeast's roe-handling operations are overseen by Japanese graders. That's what Japanese buyers demand, and that's how it's been for 30 to 40 years, according to Sunderland and others. The roe graders come from a long tradition of egg-handling.

"One area in Japan basically supplies the whole industry," he said.

Even in roe rooms, the process is mysterious. One "brine monkey" - a lowly worker at a processor - described how after several summers of watching, he still never figured out what made good ikura. It didn't help that he didn't speak Japanese.

The good egg

Things are a little more open at Northern Keta, whose owners allowed a journalist in on the last day of the season to watch the process.

Sean Fansler and Mark Heironymus, the roe experts and Babich's partners, use an old-fashioned system. They rub the skeins of roe through a metal screen to release them from their membranes and pour the lot into a vat of swirling brine. The particulars are not for publication, but a racquetball racquet is involved.

Northern Keta is different from other Southeast caviar-makers, because it grades its own roe, hasen't sold to Japan in years, and pooh-poohs the ikura mystique. But they retain a little mystery.

Take the grading process. Heironymus sorts quickly; he's seeing color, opacity, size, bounciness, shell thickness and other qualities. But it's not like he has some neat 100-point objective scale sanctioned by the Robert Parks of caviar.

"You have to have seen thousands of them," he says.

He tries to explain it in a basic way. The perfect skein, the No. 1 quality, bounces a little if you squeeze it gently. Its yolk is thick. An older, imperfect egg has a harder shell, but pops or leaks when squeezed.

The salting is an art, too. Every wild batch is different. Fansler tastes an egg here or there as the batch swirls. According to him, it's not the saltiness he's tasting, but the nuances of flavor that change as a result of the salt composition.

He and Heironymus used to take bets on the proportion of salt in the brine and then test themselves. They're good to a tenth of a percent, he said.

What is best, they maintain, isn't objective, but what the markets want. The Japanese don't care for hard-shell caviar, such as what comes from end-of-the-line hatchery chum, but those look the nicest in jars destined for Europeans.

In general, a wider range of quality is available in Europe and Russia, whose not-so-rich inhabitants have been salting fish eggs for centuries to preserve them. There, one can get both the tinned, old-sock-reminiscent, salmon-flavored-goo and the No. 1, sushi-grade, delicate orange pearls such as Northern Keta's.

Fansler and Heironymus point to that history and say caviar isn't inherently a delicacy. But they talk about fish eggs like wine experts do about fermented grape juice.

Chum are the salmon-caviar top-quality standard; the flavor that makes for bland flesh makes for delicate eggs. The general public doesn't go for the other species, but those taste more interesting, said the experts.

King salmon eggs taste "like fall," Heironymus says.

"Pumpkin seeds," agrees Fansler. He says coho eggs taste "like iron, like you've bitten your lip."

"We've been a slave to the egg for a long time," Fansler said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or e-mail kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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